UT-Austin team working to improve community health in Mexico and Texas

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A team of health scholars from The University of Texas at Austin and institutions in Mexico are working to improve health on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Researchers participated in a summit recently to continue discussions over various projects aimed at this goal.

“What we wanted to do was create an environment, a space that would be able to creatively engage these problems and to use the skills, the talent and the expertise of people from all over campus,” said Ricardo Ainslie, Ph.D., director of the LLILAS Mexico Center at UT Austin and an affiliate faculty member at Dell Medical School’s Department of Population Health.

A screenshot of the Father’s Playbook app. (Steffi Lee/Nexstar Broadcasting)

One of the projects focuses on providing expectant dads with more information about pregnancy and life after their baby is born.

The Father’s Playbook app, available both on the iPhone and the Android, was developed by the team led by Michael Mackert, Ph.D. Mackert is the director of the Center for Health Communication, a joint center between Dell Med and UT Austin’s Moody College of Communication. The Texas Safe Babies team also includes The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler and the SAGA Lab at UT Austin.

The free app is bilingual in English and Spanish and provides information about financial planning, ways pregnancy can affect men, staying healthy and preparing for the baby’s arrival.

“Dads are everywhere,” Ainslie said.

Dr. Jonathan Lugo, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Tey Women’s Health Center, says it could benefit soon-to-be fathers.

“What we do see is a lot of fathers not being as engaged or involved,” he said.

Mackert said the inspiration for creating the app came from personal experience. When his wife was first pregnant, he saw that most of the conversations around prenatal care were centered around the mother. Ainslie says back then, he also felt that he didn’t quite have all the information needed when he was preparing for his children.

“As a father myself — I have four children — I know that it can be a little scary, it can be a little daunting to have a very young child, especially when you don’t know exactly how to optimally engage,” Ainslie said.

Experts hope having this app and bringing more fathers on board about their role in pregnancy can help improve family engagement, since dynamics are changing both in Texas and in Mexico.

“We are a long way from that era of the nuclear family where dad goes to work and mom stays home and raises children,” Ainslie said. “We live in a society and this is increasingly true in Mexico as well, where most families have both parents working.”

Studying community trauma

Carmen Valdez, Ph.D., who is an associate professor at Dell Med’s Department of Population Health and at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, is leading a team studying community trauma after natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. They’re also looking at human-made events like mass shootings.

Researchers are continuing to travel between Texas and Mexico and will be conducting studies. Previously, a team joined Ainslie in visiting the areas impacted by the 2017 Puebla earthquake in Mexico.

A church in Mexico damaged in the 2017 Puebla earthquake. (Courtesy: Ricardo Ainslie)

Valdez’s background is in psychology.

“As a psychologist, I was trained to think about trauma as an individual experience, someone who is exposed to or who has directly experienced a disturbing event,” she said. “And although there is indeed a psychological consequence to experiencing trauma, what we are seeing entire communities that are migrating or are being displaced because of large societal events. What we’re hoping to do in this project is to collaborate with others who have different areas of expertise — architecture, engineering nursing, health, mental health, education, sociology, to better understand how entire communities are affected by natural disasters, especially when communities are disadvantaged to begin with.”

She says it’s important to not only provide immediate help but to also find concrete, long-term solutions in these cases.

“What is the social impact?” Valdez said. “What is the economic impact and what is the impact on the environment in the place we live, where we go to church, where we work, where we play and what are initiatives that we can do as a community to improve the resources that are available?”

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